Commissioners take gripes, lambaste press


By Leslee Kulba –

The Buncombe County Commissioners hosted their first district meeting at the Enka Public Library Tuesday. The objective was to give citizens of District 3 a chance to air their gripes. As representatives of the district, Commissioners Joe Belcher and David King took the lead in responding to citizen concerns. Next Monday, July 15, Brownie Newman and Holly Jones will address concerns of citizens in District 1 at Lord Auditorium in Pack Memorial Library, beginning at 6:00 p.m., and Tuesday, July 16, Mike Fryar and Ellen Frost will do the same for citizens in District 2 at the Swannanoa Fire Substation.

Chair David Gantt led the meeting. After introductions, he called on Kim MacQueen. But as soon as he gave her the floor, he interrupted to say he wanted to hear first from residents of the district. Having already recognized MacQueen, who lives downtown, he allowed her to proceed. Her question was very long, so Belcher quipped they would make an exception but limit the number of questions per outsider to seventeen.

The Public: MacQueen asked what the point and ramifications were going to be for House Bill 418. The bill had passed the state senate earlier that day and was expected to breeze through the house. It was supposed to eliminate redundancies and save taxpayer dollars by folding the parks and recreation departments of city and county governments into one huge authority. The authority would be run by a board appointed by the county commissioners, but it would also have the power to levy up to a seven-cent tax. The notion had been in the works for about a decade, but this year, the public libraries were added to the list of services to be governed by the authority. The bill was recently amended to eliminate municipalities from participating.

MacQueen serves on the county’s library board, so she had a responsibility to know how this was expected to impact library staff. In a broader sense, she wanted to know what efficiencies were supposed to result by creating another level of bureaucracy if municipalities were not to be involved, how the taxpayers were supposed to benefit thereby, and why a new bureaucracy made more sense than simply combining two departments.

The Commission: It was Frost who shed the first light on why the bill would make any sense. Calling herself the most liberal member of the board, she said parks and recreation and libraries are historically among the first county services to be cut when budgets get tight. By putting them under an independent taxing authority, they would have their own revenue stream and therefore be more sustainable. Newman added the potential for partnering with municipalities was not precluded at a future date. The legislation as-is would give the authority the chance to work out some bugs before expanding.

The Public: John Jones said he would never use the parks and recreation facilities his taxes will be supporting, but he would eagerly pay to go see BMX or stock car racing. He asked why the county was discriminating against forms of recreation that do not require public subsidy.

The Commission: The board assured the public there was no discrimination. Even though a motorsports facility had just been rejected by the powers that be, zoning ordinances allow such facilities in 80 percent of the county. Rice interjected that was true on zoning maps, but not so in the real world. Most of the county does not have the infrastructure to support the traffic motorsports enthusiasts would generate.

The Public: Jerry Rice thought county government was being irresponsible. He was skeptical about the benefits of the recreation authority. The legislative delegation touts MSD as a great model of efficiency. If it has its day, Asheville’s water system will soon be taken over by the MSD, but Rice’s sewer bill runs three times higher than his water bill, and he suspects the same will be true for his recreation bill. Rice contested his revaluation and was able to get his assessment lowered 68.2 percent. Besides feeling government is getting too much money, he was concerned what impact all reval challenges were going to have on the county budget.

The Commission: For just about every question, Belcher emphasized that consideration of how decisions would impact his dear grandchildren was his “default button.” He then said every day he has served on the commission, he and Commissioner King have whittled away at the budget. For those new to the game, he explained that 85 percent of the county’s budget is untouchable; the county is but the administrator of state and federal mandates. This year, the county was slapped with an additional unanticipated $8 million in mandatory expenses. Belcher said he could provide a list of savings he had negotiated for the county, but he emphasized the $220,000 he cut from the purchase of land for the new school. He said those involved in the sale were shocked when he even suggested negotiating, as they had never heard of such a thing. He also saved the county $380,000 in negotiations with GE Aviation. King added they had just saved $10,000 earlier that day.

King faulted the media for not covering the story. Newspapers are into sensationalism. They are branded by their political ideologies, but he could not let partisan prejudice stand in the way of him creating jobs for the people of Buncombe County. GE was going to create 300 jobs in Buncombe County, and for every 100 employees, there would be $30 million. Because the commissioners agreed to help GE, 1300 jobs, that might have gone to Delaware or Mississippi, will be coming to North Carolina.

The commissioners elaborated following an inquiry into how they select winners and losers. King said they don’t select the businesses, they come to the commissioners. King said he was elected to represent the people of Buncombe County, and it is “extremely fair” to bring the bacon home to his constituents. Belcher emphasized the incentives the county gave to GE are going to turn into profits in the first year.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton then was called upon to share thresholds businesses must promise to meet before receiving corporate welfare from Buncombe. Businesses must be in the manufacturing industry, want to locate headquarters here, and invest at least $2 million in the local economy. Types of jobs and wages are also a consideration. Gantt added that criteria must be met before awards are disbursed. He then repeated that Ingles did not receive its grant once because it fell short of commitments.

The Media: The problem is half of Buncombe County’s children qualify for subsidized school lunches. In spite of mainstream reports about economic recovery, a fifth of the nation’s population is on food stamps. Everybody agrees on the problem: There is a shortage of personal income potential. Solutions vary, largely because economics is a multivariate science in which cherry-picking derives desired theoretical outcomes, and people are clever enough to migrate, black-market, or otherwise evade any bad economic decision until it looks good.

As has been stated previously, think tanks have the luxury of studying and advocating for long-range, long-term economic benefits. Politicians, on the other hand, are in a bind. They have to deliver what the big interests want now, or they won’t get re-elected. In order to check government’s tendency to grow by making promises to each entity that promises votes, somebody has to advocate for the general welfare. As Senator Strom Thurmond said, “You can’t get a hog to butcher itself.”

That said, historical studies indicate wealth is the product of individual risk-taking. On a global scale, nations that receive government handouts have not in over half a century been able to turn their economies around. Change was realized in Czechoslovakia, when Vaclav Klaus refused foreign aid. He argued it is crippling to expect somebody else to be responsible for one’s well-being.

But corporate welfare was never intended to help the beggar in the street. It is a game that is played because everybody is doing it. Politicians used to hold their noses and approve it. Now, the practice is so widespread, the public is condemned for challenging it. It is not politically-correct to suggest that it is bad for government to be in bed with business. After all, it is corporations with huge lobbying and financing machines that are able to persuade politicians that it is in the public good to have everybody subsidize their corporate risks.

As the practice grows, more and more of the nation’s best and brightest are diverting their time and talents from the productive sector into rent-seeking endeavors. Government is more and more viewed as the grantor of good and bad fortune. On the flip-side, subsidies are a great way to reduce the risk of regime change. History has shown that the more government gets into the business of redistribution, the more coercive measures are required to keep the peace. Is that the kind of society we want? Then raise my taxes, please!

The Public: Michelle Pace Wood expressed concern about legislation eliminating the ETJ. A crime wave appears to be leaking west of the city. Loiterers hang out and drink in parking lots of private businesses after hours. Graffiti and panhandling are also making the rounds. Wood spoke to Sheriff Van Duncan, and he said all business owners could do is put up signs restricting off-hours loitering, etc. Wood did not want to go that route, because signs imply there is a problem and thus devalue property. There was also a certain military surplus store with a trashy lot that was getting on citizens’ nerves. Wood asked what the county could do.

The Commission: Board members expressed empathy and said they are looking into the matter.

The Public: John Jones also asked why the commissioners were putting undevelopable lands into conservation easements. He said out in Sandy Mush, people were hoodwinking government into doing just that. He added the conservation people were trying to get “every one of us” in Sandy Mush to put his property in an easement.

The Commission: Newman said the county spends very little on conservation easements. What is spent is coverage of transaction costs. Furthermore, if property is not developable, it will not be appraised worth a whole lot, and appraisals are a requisite part of the process.

The Public: Rice complained about contaminated sites purchased by the county.

The Commission: Rice was told the county must comply with strict guidelines, but it did inherit a lot of bad stuff from before environmental regulations applied. Gantt said the county had two bond-rating upgrades during the recession. It now enjoys an AAA rating and gets loans with 2.7 percent interest. The commissioners were not going to risk losing those privileges by investing in toxic junk. County Manager Wanda Greene added the Local Government Commission as well as lenders would not allow the county to buy toxic lands. Any inherited hazards must be remediated before opening them to the public.

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